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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 25 November 2020

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 (Roll-out of Testing Programme), Policing (Complaints Handling, Investigations and Misconduct Issues) (Independent Review), Legal Advice (Publication), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Inverclyde Royal Hospital (Intensive Care Provision)


Portfolio Question Time

Economy, Fair Work and Culture

Good afternoon. Before we begin, I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe those measures over the course of this afternoon’s business, including when entering and exiting the chamber.

The first item of business is portfolio question time. We start with questions on economy, fair work and culture. Questions 7 and 8 are grouped together, so any supplementaries on them will be taken after both principal questions have been asked.

Covid-19 (Support for Youth Theatre)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures are being put in place to support youth theatre during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04777)

Youth theatre has been supported through our wider culture funding and through our targeted funding for youth music and arts, which is delivered by Creative Scotland. The targeted youth arts fund is supporting Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, Scottish Youth Theatre and Toonspeak Young People’s Theatre. Youth theatre organisations will also benefit from the other youth arts funds.

Scottish Youth Theatre, PACE in Paisley and Shazam in Aberdeen have received funding from the culture organisations and venues recovery fund, and youth theatre freelancers have been supported through the hardship fund for creative freelancers.

I have here a letter from my constituent that I received last week. Her children have been attending Perth Youth Theatre for the best part of 10 years. She points out that, because of the restrictions in theatres, the youth group has not been able to function, although activities for under-18s such as dance classes, brownies and cubs have all been taking place in a socially distanced way. Perth Youth Theatre activities have not been taking place, despite the fact that the theatre has a lot of wide space.

Is the Scottish Government giving any thought to how it can be consistent on indoor activities for people aged under 18, particularly as we approach the winter?

Clearly, youth arts and youth theatre are very important to young people. We have performing arts guidance and there is guidance for young people in such places as the member references. There is definitely an issue about what can be done in the performing arts by any amateur organisation, especially at this time, given the strategic framework levels.

We are acutely aware of the need to return to such performances and other youth arts activities. I am very conscious of that and we will try to move forward as quickly as we can, but safety has to be paramount.

The cabinet secretary mentioned targeted funding. Music-making activity is very important for young people. Can the cabinet secretary give an update on the funding that is being provided to enable young people to take part in music-making activities? Is that part of the targeted funding?

The £3 million youth arts fund, which was announced in August, has a strong focus on access to music-making activities. On 12 November, we announced the projects that had been successful in applying to the youth arts fund. For example, £580,000 is going to music projects across 11 organisations, such as the National Youth Choir of Scotland and the Scottish Music Centre. Another example is Drake Music Scotland, which does fantastic work with young people with disabilities and additional needs. Creative Scotland will announce successful recipients of the small grants scheme and the open access fund in due course. All those things are part of how we are trying to help youth arts through this difficult period.

Youth Guarantee and Kickstart (Collaboration)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding a potential collaboration between its youth guarantee initiative and the UK kickstart scheme. (S5O-04778)

The Scottish Government is working closely with the UK Government, local authorities, the third sector and the business community to deliver the young persons guarantee. That includes building on the strong local employability partnerships that are already in place throughout Scotland.

As I have detailed in previous correspondence to the UK Government, alignment between the kickstart scheme and the young persons guarantee will be vital in ensuring that businesses and young people can access the support that they need. I am also keen that the delivery of the kickstart scheme is aligned to our inclusion and fair work principles.

I will meet the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Thérèse Coffey MP, and Welsh Government counterparts on 10 December. That meeting will provide an opportunity for ministers to discuss how we can best ensure alignment to support our young people.

The cabinet secretary will, of course, be aware of the recent announcement at the HALO project, where the UK kickstart scheme has invested £1.5 million to have 200 16 to 24-year-olds trained in digital cybersecurity. That is being matched by the partners at the HALO project to ensure that there is a 12-month scheme. Does the cabinet secretary agree that there is scope for a more significant intervention with positive outcomes if the youth guarantee initiative is implemented alongside the UK kickstart scheme?

Brian Whittle will be aware that the kickstart scheme is for six months. I welcome the support from employers that are extending that, but our view is that we might need a two-year provision to help young people to properly position themselves to get into work.

I am glad that Brian Whittle identified the HALO project work, which is really important. Digital skills are in great demand. If we can align the young persons guarantee with the greater demand that we know is coming in digital, that will be really important. I hope that Brian Whittle and other members will encourage other local employers to step up to the mark so that we, the UK Government, employers and everyone from education and the third sector who is working in support of young people can at least give our young people a chance through this difficult period.

Have any assurances been received from the UK Government that people who are employed through the kickstart scheme will receive a living wage? Can the cabinet secretary confirm that fair working principles and sustainable employment will be embedded in the young persons guarantee?

The kickstart scheme provides funding only to cover the minimum wage. It is up to employers to decide whether they want to supplement that. I have written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to set out my belief that there should be the living wage for the kickstart scheme, and I intend to raise the importance of embedding fair work and the living wage across all employment programmes when we meet in December.

I can confirm that commitments to fair work principles and sustainable employment are not only embedded in the young persons guarantee; they have a central role in all our employability work, including fair start Scotland and the no one left behind policy.

Programme for Government (Economic Impact Assessment)

To ask the Scottish Government what work it has undertaken to assess the potential economic impact of the commitments set out in its programme for government. (S5O-04779)

The programme for government sets out a range of measures to respond to the immediate challenges that are posed by Covid-19 and to move us towards the stronger, more resilient and sustainable wellbeing economy that we want to see, with a particular focus on new quality green jobs. The measures build on the independent and expert advice of the advisory group on economic recovery, but they are, obviously, constrained by the fiscal powers that are available to us. Despite that, we have provided almost £1.3 billion of economic recovery funds on top of the £2.3 billion of original support for business; our national transition training fund will provide retraining and upskilling opportunities to support up to 10,000 jobs; and our new inward investment plan, which could deliver 100,000 high-value jobs over the next decade, will play a key role in Scotland’s economic recovery.

We have not yet conducted a full retrospective evaluation of Covid-19 business support, but the early signs are that the support from the Scottish Government has provided an additional complementary impact over and above that of United Kingdom Government schemes. The commitments that we have made will protect Scotland against the continued risk from Covid-19 and will renew Scotland. As I have said, we want to build back greener, fairer and stronger.

The cabinet secretary rightly talks about green jobs. Two years ago, the Government claimed that it had saved Burntisland Fabrications, but yesterday it gave up on the company and its workers. When I stand on the harbour at Anstruther, I can see work already beginning on a wind farm off the Fife coast. The issue is therefore urgent. What new steps will the Government take to ensure that some jackets for any of the wind farms off the Scottish coast will be built in Fife?

The situation is extremely difficult. I have kept in touch with, and have written to, Saipem to try to keep the door open and to see whether there can be some kind of delivery of some of the jackets at BiFab. That is extremely challenging. The unions and members of the Parliament asked me to approach the United Kingdom Government to ask it to intervene with working capital and assurance. We should remember that the majority shareholders and the directors of BiFab are not doing that themselves. The UK Government agrees with our analysis and cannot provide intervention for BiFab that is legally compliant. That is a challenge, but we will continue to work to see what can be done.

We have agreed to set up a working group that will look at what can be done for BiFab, not just in Fife but in Arnish and elsewhere, and across the wider supply chain to ensure that we have jobs in renewable energy. However, we need the contracts for difference system to be changed because, otherwise, Scotland will always be at a disadvantage to labour costs being undercut from elsewhere across the globe, as was made clear in the evidence that was given to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee yesterday.

In the cabinet secretary’s constituency and in my region, there are wind turbines as far as the eye can see and none of them has been built in Scotland. The programme for government makes all sorts of commitments to jobs and renewable energy, and we hear warm words about green jobs and a just transition. However, that is all utterly meaningless today as BiFab looks set to lose yet more work and may close.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that that is catastrophic, that it is a damning example of the abject failure to build domestic turbine manufacturing capacity and that it is one of the greatest missed opportunities of our time?

I do not agree with Neil Findlay’s analysis, although I agree that we should be getting more jobs from procurement for the renewables pipeline. However, as we heard in the evidence that was given by industry experts to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee only yesterday, some of the issues go back over decades. Changes need to be made to the powers that the Scottish Parliament has, to regulation and to the cost of the provision of the delivery of renewable energy, both offshore and onshore, so that we can build the capacity that is needed to have a resilient supply chain that will support the renewables industry.

As economy secretary, I am committed to ensuring that that happens. I am in active discussions with the private sector and others to make sure that we can get contracts, but it is not just our responsibility. That is why I have been pressing the UK Government to step up to the mark to remove some of the barriers that it has inflicted on the supply chain.

Covid-19 (Support for Arts, Culture and Tourism)

To ask the Scottish Government what further financial support it is considering making available to the arts, culture and tourism sectors as a result of Covid-19. (S5O-04780)

In the interests of transparency, I should perhaps mention that although I enjoy travel immensely but have no declarable interests as such, I have relatives in the Scottish tourism sector, as many members probably do.

To date, the Scottish Government has committed £107 million for arts and culture, with £102 million having been allocated so far. The hardship fund for creative freelancers is currently open for applications. Across the two elements of that fund, which is run by Creative Scotland and Screen Scotland, there is a total budget of £8 million.

We are aware of on-going needs in the arts, culture and tourism sectors. We are currently exploring how to provide additional financial support most effectively, including how we take forward financial support for the recommendations of the industry-led tourism recovery task force.

As the member will be aware, Fergus Ewing, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, is responsible for the aspects of his question that relate to tourism.

Those who are involved in the tourism sector have told me that their businesses are being decimated and destroyed by the travel implications of the Covid regulations and the impact that the pandemic has had on the sector. Individual businesses have often benefited much from United Kingdom Government schemes such as the furlough scheme. Will the Scottish Government implement a detailed, targeted and comprehensive package of support for the inbound and the outbound Scottish tourism sector?

The member will know that tourism is the responsibility of Fergus Ewing. However, I will try to answer the question and will correct anything if I am mistaken.

In Scotland, we have given unique support to the tourism sector. Many tourism organisations have benefited from the pivotal enterprise resilience fund and the creative, hospitality and leisure funds that were not available in the rest of the UK. There is the £20 million hotel recovery fund and, as I mentioned in my initial answer, the industry-led task force has made a comprehensive set of recommendations about what should happen to support tourism in future. As I said, we are currently looking at how we can best support that.

Gordon Lindhurst referred to the outbound tourism sector. We are considering the contingency-plus element of the funding that is provided to local government to identify what support can be given to outbound tourism organisations.

Even though tourism is not my responsibility, I hope that I have given as comprehensive an answer as I can.

UEFA Euro Championships

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on preparations for Scotland hosting the UEFA Euro championships in June 2021. (S5O-04781)

The Scottish Government is working closely with its event partners—the Scottish Football Association, Glasgow City Council, Police Scotland and EventScotland—on preparations for the matches at Hampden next summer.

In response to Covid, we are also considering a range of planning scenarios for the tournament, including supporter attendance at the stadium and event fan zones.

We look forward to welcoming the Czech Republic and Croatia to Hampden, and I am particularly delighted that Scotland’s men’s national team will be there competing in its first major international tournament in 23 years.

The cabinet secretary might be aware of comments about the championships possibly not taking place in multiple countries as planned because of the Covid situation. Can she shed any light on that and perhaps offer the necessary assurances to UEFA? Will she also congratulate Steve Clarke, his squad and the whole management for taking Scotland back to our first championships since 1998?

I absolutely congratulate the manager and the team. It was a fantastic moment of celebration, and the whole country was lifted by that fantastic achievement.

UEFA has stated that it intends to hold Euro 2020 in the format and at the venues that were confirmed earlier this year, with 12 host cities across Europe. In response to the recent media speculation that Mr Coffey mentioned, UEFA has reiterated that there are presently no plans to change any venue. As he would expect, the Scottish Government and our event partners are in regular dialogue with UEFA to discuss planning scenarios for the matches at Hampden.

Euro 2020 will provide another opportunity to build on Scotland’s reputation as a world-class host of major events, and we look forward to next summer with even more anticipation because Scotland will be competing alongside the best in Europe.

I would like to associate myself with the cabinet secretary’s remarks congratulating Steve Clarke and his team for making the finals. I was at the world cup opener in 1998 when Scotland played against Brazil, and I did not think that I would be a middle-aged man by the time that we next qualified.

Our national game has been hit hard, especially with smaller clubs that are more reliant on gate receipts being worried about their future, and with Scottish football facing a £100 million loss. Next week, fans in England can return to matches in low-risk areas with capacity rules in place to provide extra safety. Will Scotland adopt a similar approach?

That is the responsibility of the sports minister, but I will attempt to answer the question.

Community football in particular is really important to our towns across Scotland. I am sure that the member will have spoken to local community clubs, as I have done, so he will know that their gate receipts are very important to them. However, safety is, too. Everyone I have spoken to understands those constraints.

I understand that funding has been provided at UK level for community football in particular, and the sports minister has written to identify Barnett consequentials from the UK Government that could be used in Scotland for similar purposes.

In relation to attendance, Mr Golden will be aware that, at level 1 and level 0, football can commence with 300 people in attendance. Indeed, Ross County recently held a game that was attended. That activity can take place in level 1 areas.

Do we have a system in place where football could return with attendances in stadiums? The answer is yes—that has already happened in Scotland—but it is obviously tied to the safety issues around the different levels.

Covid-19 (Women’s Businesses and Employment)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will address the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on women’s businesses and employment. (S5O-04782)

I recognise the particularly challenging circumstances that women-led businesses and women in employment are facing as a result of Covid-19. We remain fully committed to the cross-sector partnership approach of the women in enterprise framework, and I have recently engaged with Scottish representatives of the women in enterprise policy group to discuss the issues arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The women returners fund, which was launched earlier this month and is backed by £500,000, following on from a 2018-19 pilot scheme, will fund projects that help to address gender inequality in the workplace and will build on the Scottish Government’s commitment to reducing the gender pay gap. A further £850,000 will be available through the workplace equality fund to help organisations to develop more inclusive and diverse workplaces.

The minister mentioned the gender pay gap, which is already a big issue, with women being employed in low-paid sectors. We also have an enterprise gap, with a long-standing deficit in women running their own businesses and receiving business support.

Covid-19 has impacted on many women-led businesses. Travel and tourism, the beauty industry and the wedding industry are all areas in which there are many women entrepreneurs. Will the minister further outline what is being done to ensure that women can recover their businesses as we recover from the pandemic, and that women’s work in general is better valued?

Even before the crisis, we knew that there were challenges. That remains the case, and we know that it will continue to be the case if we do not take concerted action. We remain committed to doing that through our work on women in enterprise and on the gender pay gap to address the structural barriers that face women.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance took part in a question and answer session with women in business, and engaged directly with many of the sectors that Ms Martin mentioned. We know that there are challenges there, and we continue to look at how we can support those sectors in particular.

On a more general point about supporting women in enterprise into the recovery period, we remain committed to pursuing the concept of a women’s business centre. That is an agenda that we are very much committed to taking forward.

Covid-19 (Restrictions) (Business Support)

7. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what support is available for businesses impacted by the Covid-19 restrictions. (S5O-04783)

Grants of up to £3,000 are available for businesses that are required to close by law, and grants of up to £2,100 are available for businesses that remain open but are required by law to modify their operations. Also, £45 million of additional support is being made available, including a £15 million fund for newly self-employed people and a £30 million discretionary fund for local authorities to provide additional support for businesses. We are doing everything that we can do with the powers that we have to help businesses that have been impacted by Covid-19, and we are offering support that now exceeds £2.3 billion.

A number of accommodation providers in the parts of my region that are in level 2 have contacted me to say that they are not eligible for the strategic framework business fund, despite the fact that they are clearly restricted by Scottish Government laws. For example, self-catering accommodation providers can accept only single-household bookings from the small number of people who can travel. I appreciate that the minister said that councils now have a discretionary budget, but surely those businesses should be eligible for a non-discretionary business restriction grant.

Will the minister clarify whether the strategic framework business fund provides any support for unlicensed accommodation businesses, given the huge impact that Government restrictions are having on them?

If Mr Smyth wants to write to me with specific examples, I will be happy to look at them in the context of the specific pockets of funding that I have laid out.

However, I make the observation that we recognise that not every element of the specific support that I have set out and the grants that are available will cover such businesses, which is why we have created a pocket of discretionary funding to empower local authorities to respond to their local circumstances and support a wider range of businesses.

If Mr Smyth wants to contact me with the details, I will be happy to look into the matter and get back to him with more information.

Covid-19 (Support for Small and Medium-sized Businesses)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it is giving to small and medium-sized businesses facing difficulty as a result of the pandemic. (S5O-04784)

The Scottish Government recognises the role that small and medium-sized enterprises play in our communities and our economy in Scotland. That is why we are committed to delivering support that meets the needs of SMEs throughout, and beyond, the pandemic. As I set out in my previous answer, that includes grants of up to £3,000 for businesses that are required to close by law, and grants of up to £2,100 for businesses that remain open but are required by law to modify their operations.

The full range of support that is offered by the Scottish Government, our agencies and local authorities, including Business Gateway, is available on our website.

Growth is crucial to the long-term survival of our businesses. Although there is no denying that the pandemic has been extremely tough on many businesses, others are in the fortunate position of looking to expand their services and the diversity of their operations. What focus has Scottish Enterprise put on companies that are in that position to assist them in taking advantage of new opportunities and in recognising expansion opportunities?

Scottish Enterprise has a crucial role to play at any time in supporting companies at all stages of growth. I have seen it work assiduously over the recent period; it has worked closely with us to respond to the challenges that many businesses have faced.

On the specific question, I note that earlier this month the early stage growth challenge fund committed almost £25 million of funding to support some of Scotland’s most pioneering young companies to achieve their growth ambitions. In October, the flagship unlocking ambition programme was again supporting a cohort of 40 of Scotland’s most talented entrepreneurs to develop their full potential and accelerate growth.

We are committed to doing all that we can to help businesses—in the current context and, of course, as we recover—to continue to grow, thrive and employ many people across the country.

Covid-19 (Weekly Testing of Teachers)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to provide weekly Covid-19 tests for teachers. (S5O-04785)

To support the return of schools in August, we put in place arrangements to allow members of school staff who are concerned to get a Covid-19 test, whether or not they have symptoms. I committed in Parliament last week to make plans to build on that, including the piloting of rapid in-school testing of staff.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will make a statement on the next stage of testing expansion following portfolio question time, and will update Parliament on plans for commencement of pilots with the objective of establishing a sustainable programme of asymptomatic testing among school staff.

I support schools remaining open, even under the toughest of restrictions, but the cabinet secretary must recognise that teachers feel especially exposed. They feel that they are at particular risk and that the risk extends to their families. Does the cabinet secretary recognise their anxiety, and does he support the principle, at least, of weekly testing for teachers and has he been making that case to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport?

I do recognise the anxiety that members of staff feel in the circumstances. The move to level 4 restrictions obviously has the potential to exacerbate anxiety, but I point out to Mr Sarwar that in all level 4 local authority areas the prevalence of the virus—cases per 100,000—is now lower than it has been over the past two to three weeks. We are in an improving position, albeit that the area that Mr Sarwar represents is in a level 4 designation.

I am making the case internally for wider testing of teachers. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and my ministerial colleagues are very supportive of that approach; the cabinet secretary will shortly have more to say on that in her statement to Parliament.

Will the cabinet secretary update Parliament as soon as possible on when more detail is available on the uptake of asymptomatic testing?

As I indicated in my answer to Mr Sarwar, asymptomatic testing will be available on a pilot basis. We have had other testing arrangements in place for school staff, who have been able to obtain testing through the employer portal when they have been concerned about their wellbeing. I reiterate that availability to members of staff, and encourage anybody who is concerned about their circumstances to pursue it as an option, to provide either a test of virus positivity or to provide some reassurance in these difficult times.

Inverclyde Students (Examination Results)

To ask the Scottish Government what assurances it can provide to students in Inverclyde that their exam results will be reflective of the work that they do in this academic year. (S5O-04786)

I can assure pupils and students who are undertaking national qualifications in Inverclyde and every other part of the country that every effort is being made to ensure that their hard work is recognised fairly and consistently.

I have already confirmed that we can no longer risk running a full exam diet in 2021, and I have asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority to take an alternative approach to national 5 accreditation in that year. That approach will have teacher judgment at its core and will be supported by assessment resources and quality assurance. There will be no algorithm, and the results will reflect an individual’s work rather than the past performance of his or her school.

Our ambition remains for higher and advanced higher exams to proceed if possible. However, it must be safe for them to do so, and it must be fair to learners. We are monitoring the position closely and listening to all the different views on the matter. Contingency plans are being drawn up to ensure that awarding for higher and advanced higher courses is fair and consistent should exams not be possible, and a final evidence-based decision on that will be made no later than mid-February.

The Deputy First Minister will note that the latest Scottish index of multiple deprivation figures label areas in my constituency as the most deprived in Scotland. Given that the evidence suggests that pupils who attended schools in deprived areas were the most negatively affected by the SQA’s grading system for the 2019-20 academic year, what more can the Scottish Government do to drive down the attainment gap in Inverclyde and ensure that all school pupils can thrive, regardless of their postcode?

The Government makes available support for that purpose through the local authority settlement, and specifically through the attainment Scotland fund, from which £6 million was spent in Inverclyde to help close the poverty-related attainment gap. In addition, £2.5 million of pupil equity funding will be available in 2021-22 to support school plans to raise attainment.

It is very important that the work that we have been taking forward on a sustained basis for some time to close the attainment gap is continued in the forthcoming period, as it will support young people. In the results that were announced in August, we saw a closure of the attainment gap, which will be welcome news in Inverclyde, as it will be in other parts of the country.

We know that national 5s have been cancelled in favour of on-going assessment, coursework and teacher estimates. However, the reality is far from the rhetoric. We know that the SQA is actually asking teachers to hold exams that

“replicate, as far as possible, the standard, duration, format and security”

of normal exams. If exams are cancelled, why are teachers are being asked to do the job of the SQA?

The SQA, along with other stakeholders in the education system, has issued guidance that indicates that prelims are not required. Individual decisions will be taken by individual schools on those questions, and I would certainly not want to second-guess that decision making. The guidance from the SQA is quite clear that there is no requirement for prelims to take their course.

The SQA has provided, and is providing, schools with assessment materials, which I would describe as part and parcel of the normal rudimentary approach to learning and teaching during the year; teachers would be undertaking some of that work. Those materials are deliberately provided in their current format to try to reduce the workload on teachers by giving them clarity about what material will satisfy the requirements for the assessment of standards. I hope that that is viewed as a helpful intervention in schools around the country.

Students in Inverclyde and elsewhere who are studying for SQA awards need to know that they will be fairly assessed if they lose significant time to self-isolation or if planned exams ultimately do not proceed. To that end, and to give them greater confidence, can the cabinet secretary confirm that he will ensure that they will be given the right to appeal directly to the SQA next year?

There are a number of issues in Mr Gray’s question. The first relates to the fairness that must be applied to all candidates—an issue that is central to me in my decision making. I have taken that decision in relation to national 5.

I am carefully examining the information that I have, and I have asked local authorities to supply me with information about the extent of the disruption of education for individuals as a consequence of self-isolation and other factors. That will be influential in the evidence-based judgment that I make about whether or not it is possible to demonstrate fairness across the country in highers and advanced highers.

Mr Gray will know that the recommendation that we re-examine the question of appeals was among the recommendations of the Priestley review. I have asked the SQA to take forward that work. There is an important issue there as Parliament considers our approach to the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law. Some issues arise out of that in relation to appeals, and those points and others will be considered by the SQA in its review.

Schools (Staff and Pupil Safety)

3. Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to ensure that staff and pupils are safe in schools. (S5O-04787)

I am committed to ensuring that schools remain safe, open and welcoming for all staff and pupils. We have worked in partnership to develop guidance for schools that is informed by the latest scientific evidence, the advice of the Covid education recovery group and the understanding of real-life experiences as schools returned. That guidance is aligned with the levels under the strategic framework and sets out a core of comprehensive protective measures that will apply in all schools; it will also further enhance protective measures at levels 3 and 4. Those include greater use of face coverings and precautionary measures around formerly shielding individuals, physical education and out-of-school activities. We are also delivering our commitment to a Covid-19 surveillance programme in schools, and work to build on that programme, informed by clinical advice, is on-going.

According to the latest survey of schools by the Educational Institute of Scotland, teachers support the decision to keep schools open where at all possible, but they have real concerns about their and their pupils’ health and safety, with 43 per cent saying that they do not feel safe under the current conditions. What additional support is the Government putting into schools to increase the safety of teachers and to protect their wellbeing? It is clear that there are still significant concerns.

I recognise those issues and concerns. Indeed, I discussed them at length with representatives of the EIS in a bilateral discussion last Thursday. I take those points very seriously.

We have included a number of measures in the guidance that have strengthened the requirements for precautionary measures to be taken at levels 3 and 4. We remain open to dialogue with the teaching profession about what further steps we could take. We have expanded the size of the teaching profession, with about 1,400 additional teachers recruited and deployed in our schools. The Government has made available resources that I look to local authorities to draw down to ensure that the school environment can be kept as safe as possible through investment in cleaning services and other aspects of hygiene management.

I recognise the concerns, but I remain open to addressing any further issues that are brought to me by the professional associations, because school safety for staff and pupils is central to maintaining a safe education system.

Covid-19 (Support for Further and Higher Education Students)

To ask the Scottish Government what financial and mental health support has been made available to students in further and higher education who have been negatively impacted by Covid-19. (S5O-04788)

Eligible students in further and higher education have continued to access bursary, grant and loan payments throughout the pandemic. Earlier this year, the Scottish Government provided emergency funding of £5 million to support students and early access to £11.4 million of higher education discretionary funds. In addition, £2 million was brought forward for further education students by the Scottish Funding Council. I also announced a digital inclusion fund of £5 million to support access to digital equipment and to tackle digital poverty.

Finally, we are investing a further £3.645 million to support our existing commitment to introduce more than 80 additional counsellors in colleges and universities, and I announced additional funding of £1.32 million to help students deal with the mental health impacts of Covid-19.

I thank the Scottish Government for the support that the minister has just delineated. What discussions has he had with the university and college sector about the provision of support to students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds? The minister referred to the digital inclusion initiative. How helpful has the initiative been to that part of the student community? Is there access to the basic necessities of life, such as food deliveries, and are there specific steps that might help to ensure that students do not feel isolated?

The member asked a variety of questions, but I will try to answer quickly.

Our universities and colleges have an obligation to ensure that welfare support and support with supplies are available for any student who is self-isolating in halls of residence and for other students of whom the institutions are aware. That support has now been taken forward and, as the member knows, institutions are making a huge effort to support students.

On the digital inclusion fund, it has been heartening to see the photos on social media of our colleges and universities with rooms full of laptops that they are distributing to students in need and others. That shows that the funding from the Scottish Government—as well as funding from the institutions, which they are using for that purpose—has been put to good use.

With regard to wider support, I know that 3,500 students have tapped into the £11.4 million funding for support that I mentioned in my initial answer. Those will be students in need, who fit the criteria for that fund. Another 1,500 students have successfully applied to the other funds that were already available.

Schools (Subject Choice)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on subject choice in the 2020-21 academic year. (S5O-04789)

Schools and local authorities are responsible for planning a senior phase that allows young people to choose their preferred subjects and we expect them to take innovative approaches to ensuring that a wide choice is available. However, Covid-19 has created many challenges and we must accept that currently some opportunities are unavailable to young people because of the safety measures that were imposed in accordance with public health advice.

Schools and local authorities are working hard to do the best that they can for their young people, while prioritising the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of learners. The Scottish Government is working with Education Scotland, colleges and local authorities to monitor the impact of Covid-19 on the breadth of the senior phase curriculum offer and on collaboration between schools and with colleges, and will consider whether further guidance is required in that area.

The commission on school reform has found that, nationally, the number of subjects that secondary 4 pupils study has fallen from eight to seven or even six. That narrowing of subject choice means that in most schools it is not possible to study in all curriculum areas in S4, which disproportionately affects disadvantaged pupils.

The commission argues that it is disingenuous to refer to a number of subjects that are notionally available, as those subjects are not accessible for most individuals. Does the cabinet secretary recognise the reality that pupils face and will he ensure that all students can access the full range of subjects in S4?

I believe that all pupils are able to access a broad range of opportunities in S4. We have had well-documented discussions in the chamber and in committee about the content of the senior phase.

Fundamental differences of view exist among members as to whether we should view the senior phase as a three-year period, which it largely is for many young people who stay on at school beyond S4—a material change in circumstances since I was at school—or whether we should have a traditional curricular schedule of the type that I had when I went to school about 40 years ago.

I am satisfied that schools offer a broad—indeed, an expanding—range of choice. However, as I said in my earlier answer, the constraints of Covid restrict some of those opportunities, so with regard to ensuring that young people have them, the sooner we can get beyond the Covid period the better.

Of course, there is a chance that the curriculum review that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is undertaking, which will report in 2021, will reflect on some of those issues.

Social Care Workers (Funding of Qualifications)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on funding level 2 of Scottish vocational qualifications training for social care workers, given their important role during the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5O-04790)

This year, we are investing £0.9 million to support third sector employers that provide social care, specifically as a contribution towards the cost of putting care staff through SVQs. It is for employers to make the decision on what level of SVQ care staff should undertake, linked to their specific role.

Supporting care providers and their workforce is critical at this time. Our plan—the “Adult Social Care Winter Preparedness Plan 2020-21”, which was published on 3 November—provides an additional £112 million for the care sector to help it to respond to the demands of winter alongside the on-going challenges of Covid-19. That amount is on top of the £150 million that the sector received earlier this year to deal with the financial implications of the pandemic.

I thank the minister for her response, but I am not sure that it answered, or even addressed, the question. She just gave a list of things that she thinks are happening.

SVQ costs at level 2 are more than £1,000, which is a barrier that prevents people, whom we desperately need, from getting into the care sector. The Government funds level 3; why does it not fund level 2?

Various funding streams are available to support further and higher education. The area is complex; for example, there will be funding support streams available at SVQ level 3 that are not available at SVQ level 2. For the purposes of funding, SVQ level 2 courses are considered further education, and SVQ level 3 courses are considered higher education.

The Scottish Government provides separate funding packages for FE and HE, which have their own distinct rules on eligibility and different rates of support. Information regarding the levels of funding that are available to both FE and HE students is set out in the Student Information Scotland website.

Question 7 is from Christine Grahame, but I can see that she is having trouble with her card that operates the microphone.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My card is not working. [Laughter.]

That is not a point of order, but I think that I see a light on Christine Grahame’s microphone, so it might be working better than she thinks it is.

There may be a light on the console, but I do not know if there is one in my head. I will have to get a new card.

Blended Learning and School Closures

To ask the Scottish Government in what circumstances it would consider blended learning or a complete closure of a school or schools within a local authority. (S5O-04791)

The measures that have been put in place across wider society at different levels have been designed precisely to avoid any automatic move to remote learning or to close schools. The latest evidence that has been published by Public Health Scotland and the advisory sub-group reinforces our view that the benefits to young people of being in school outweigh the overall impact on schools of transmission rates.

The use of targeted remote learning remains an important contingency at all levels of the strategic framework. Decisions relating to public health will continue to be made by local incident management teams, and on the independent advice of local directors of public health.

The Deputy First Minister may recall that one of my previous incarnations was as a secondary teacher. Like former colleagues, I would be in daily classroom contact with more than 100 pupils. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that, as part of retaining important face-to-face teaching, pupils must adhere to the Covid rules not only in school, but outside school, to keep themselves and the staff safe, and their school open?

From our long association, I am very aware of Christine Grahame’s previous career incarnations.

Christine Grahame makes an important point, which resonates with the comments that Mr Sarwar and Mr Findlay made earlier. Teachers have a lot of interaction with pupils in the course of a day, so it is important that everybody follows the rules at all times in order to minimise the risk of transmission. In my earlier answer, I made it expressly clear that the measures that the Government is taking to suppress community transmission are designed to ensure that we can keep schools open. We have made choices—I know that others dispute and disagree with those choices—to try to protect the availability of schooling for young people because of the benefits that it delivers to each individual.

Scots Language Qualifications (Uptake)

To ask the Scottish Government what the uptake has been for the new Scots language award at Scottish credit and qualifications framework levels 3 to 6. (S5O-04792)

The Scots language award was introduced in the 2014-15 academic year. Since then, there has been a positive increase in the number of young people who have attained a pass in the award at SCQF levels 3 to 6. In its first year, in 2015, there were 54 passes in the award, and that number has increased substantially to 418 in 2020.

However, that does not tell the whole story, as many schools and centres choose to use only some of the units that make up the award as part of their studies. Therefore, the number of young people who have the opportunity to learn and engage with the Scots language is far higher. The Scottish Government continues to work with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and stakeholders to promote the award and Scots in education.

I pay tribute to Ciara Dillon, who won the young Scots writer award at the Scots language awards 2020. What action is Education Scotland taking to ensure that Scots is a valued and embedded part of the curriculum and is not just pulled out of a drawer on or around Burns night?

I associate myself with Clare Adamson’s tribute to Ciara Dillon, who won the young Scots writer award at the Scots language awards. I have just written to this year’s award winners to congratulate them on their achievements. Ciara will be one of those who will receive a letter from me.

I can assure Clare Adamson that Education Scotland values and appreciates the importance and significance of the Scots language. Development work is taken forward through the partnership approach that involves organisations such as the Scottish Language Dictionaries, the National Library of Scotland and the SQA. There is clear evidence from schools across the country that the Scots language has a developing place in the curriculum and that it is being used in classrooms by practitioners and learners. The Scots language is very much supported and appreciated by Education Scotland.

That concludes portfolio question time. I apologise to members who were keen to ask supplementary questions on either portfolio but could not be called due to time pressures. I was particularly keen to ensure that all members with a question in the Business Bulletin were taken.